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The Table Video

Christena Cleveland

Live Out of Love, Not Fear

Associate Professor of the Practice of Reconciliation, Duke University Divinity School
May 2, 2016

Christians are pretty “groupy.” Our identities are often wrapped up in our denominational and theological affiliations, racial/ethnic heritage, and other cultural groups. Christena Cleveland illuminates the ways that our “groupishness” create divisions within the family of God, and how we can begin to think about groups in a way that forges unity.


I’m gonna start by telling you all about a study that was done in the 1950s that is 100% completely unethical, and I feel like I should tell you that on the front end because I don’t want you to go out and try this at home. And when I was teaching at Westmont College a few years back, we talked about another unethical study in my psychology class.

The Stanford Prison Experiment, you might have heard about it. And then the next class, one of my students came in and told me that he had tried it on his younger siblings, and everyone had been crying. And I said, you can’t do that. So please don’t try this at home, but this study was done by Muzafer Sherif in the 50s. And he was really interested in looking to see what happens when you take otherwise normal, healthy kids and let them compete against each other. Do they change in any sort of significant way?

So, like I said, you can’t actually do this, but what he did is he found a bunch of boys all the same age 11 years old, all same race, white, same middle class backgrounds, came from more or less healthy families, were psychologically healthy, normal, nice boys. And he convinced their parents to let him take them away for summer camp for the entire summer, and the parents said yes, and so, he went and basically turned it into a summer long psychology experiment on hostility.

And he divided the boys into two groups, and the two groups did not meet each other initially. They met at separate meeting places, and they were sent on separate buses. One group of boys was sent to one side of a major state park in Oklahoma. The other group of boys was sent to an other side, so there was no interaction. They got to spend a week or two together, just kind of team building and playing games. And they came up with names. One group named themselves the Rattlers, the other group named themselves the Eagles. Everything was going great.

Then, he brought them all together at this camp. Sherif, the experimenter, was posing as the camp handyman. So he was just around fixing the pipes, but then observing what was going on with these boys. And at first, they got along okay and were happy to have new playmates, but what the researchers did, they set up a series of competitions between the Rattlers and the Eagles. And these were all what we would consider to be benign competitions.

So, tug of war, football, baseball, etc. And what they did was they gave prizes to the team that would win each competition. so every night in the mess hall over dinner, they would give our prizes. The prizes were things that you probably shouldn’t give 11 year old boys, like pocket knives and stuff like that. And they kind of had the ceremony, and one group got all of the prestige and prizes, and the other group didn’t.

And within two days, these boys turned from kind of “Leave it to Beaver” 1950s white kids into these vicious, horrible, hostile boys. One night after the Eagles had lost the game, and hadn’t gotten their pocket knives and their trophies, they took a bunch of rocks and pummeled to the Rattlers’ cabin and broke a bunch of windows and did a lot of damage. The next night, the Eagles retaliated, and they torched the Rattlers’ cabin.

One boy was seriously hurt. So pretty quickly, this fun competition devolved into something that was really, really ugly. And they go to the point where they couldn’t even have the boys in the same place at the same time without them breaking into fist fights. And what this said about human behavoir was so fascinating to Sherif because he had this hypothesis: if people have to compete against resources, will it get ugly? And he found that in the case of these boys, yes, that is true. And he continued to do more research on this topic and came up with what we call Realistic Conflict Theory.

It’s this idea that when people are competing for scarce resources, they will automatically become hostile towards each other. It just simply happens. So people have looked at realistic conflict in historical context. For example, right after the Civil War ended, during the Reconstruction period, all hell was breaking loose in the United States. The institution of slavery, which had really been the backbone of American capitalism, had fallen, and now all of a sudden, there’s a lot of competition over scarce resources. Who’s going to have the power?

Who’s going to have the economic muscle in this new society where people who were formally property were now entering the marketplace on some level? And there was a lot of fear. And in response to that, we see the birth of the KKK. In response to that, we see the beginning of lynchings. This response of hostility came out of this competition for scarce resources. Then if we look at the 1930s when cotton prices dropped, and again, we see the significant spike in scarce and scarcity, and fear around that.

We see increase in lynchings that go up around that time. A lot of research has been done a lot more recently looking at United States and Western Europe when things are going well economically, and employment rates are low, and everyone feels secure, people more or less have really favorable attitudes toward immigration. They’re like, bring ’em on in. It’d be great to have more diversity. It’d be great to have a lot of different people in our community. But when unemployment is high, when resources are scarce, all of a sudden, you see that hostility.

Don’t let anybody in. They’re gonna take our jobs. There’s so much fear. We see a lot of this now, too, as the United States has changed, a little bit. We have the first black president. We have young, educated black students who have benefited from affirmative action and historically black colleges and universities who are leading a very powerful movement, the Black Lives Matter Movement, have a voice in our society in ways that they haven’t before and what’s the response more often than not? It’s hostility. It’s, I’m not going to listen. It’s fear.

But sometimes I wonder if the scarcest resource of all, particularly within the Christian church, is around Truth with a capital T, and who gets to decide what’s true and what’s not true. And that’s when where we really do think that we can make an exception about love. We can say, you know what? The stakes are pretty high here. We have access to Truth, and they’re threatening that. And our definition of Truth with a capital T is under siege.

And so it’s okay to be hostile because we’re fighting for what’s right. One of the reasons why we’re so passionate in our hostility around battles for truth, as Western Christianity becomes more diverse, we see the global South moving here, lots different perspectives on Biblical interpretations, on theology, as we see more and more people from the LGBTQ community having a voice in the church, as we see women having more of a voice in the church, there’s lots up for grabs.

And we wonder what is the truth, and this is really tricky for us because as human beings, we hate hate hate hate hate ambiguity. We’re all naive psychologists. We all want to make sense of our world. We all want to predict what’s happening next. And so, we want to be able to have some certainty. That helps us be at peace with ourselves. So we hate ambiguity. And because we’re cognitive misers, we don’t want to take the time to wade through all that ambiguity. That’s gonna waste a lot of our cognitive resources. We want to consume them.

And so we’d rather just stick to what we think we know for sure. And if someone comes to try to open that can of worms and suggest that maybe what we think about truth needs to be revised, needs to be reconsidered. Then we respond with hostility and fear. And so we’re naturally set up for this hostility. We’re naturally set up for this fear, which is really a bummer because Jesus told us to love our enemies. And so our natural response is, to, a, identify them and name them and label them as enemies simply because we’re competing over what might be true, or power, or money.

The good news through, it that these processes they might run amok. They might run awry because we’re not aware of them because we don’t know that they’re happening. But once we become aware of them, we can actually begin. We can begin to address them. We can begin to talk about them.

As we think about ambiguity and how much we hate ambiguity, one of the things that I’ve studied in my own research is looking at black sheep in our society. And the black sheep are people that we social psychologists would characterize as they toe the party line in general, but in one really crucial way, they don’t. And so, an example of a black sheep would be a Republican who is pro-choice. That’s really confusing. That really introduces ambiguity. We feel like it’s even more okay to be hostile towards them. Much more so than we’d be against maybe someone who’s different than us, if per se, we are Republican.

Because they are messing with our clarity around what it means to be Republican. And what it means to be true. And in my research, I found that if we give people the opportunity, so I’ll bring people into my lab who are self-identified Republicans, and I’ll have them interact with someone that they think is a pro-choice Republican, a black sheep, and I’ll say, you have an opportunity to teach this person what is true. So, take the next five minutes to do that, and they’ll give it their best shot. They’ll put together a speech. And we always set it up so that the learner didn’t learn. We come back and we say, you know what, they didn’t learn.

You gave a pretty good speech, which was compelling, but they didn’t learn. Would you like to punish them? And about 80% of the time, people say yes. What are the options? What are the options? [audience laughs] Yeah, and so we say, well you have two options, you can either have them put their hand in an ice bucket for 15 minutes, or you can choose a noise blast to go into their ear. This is all ostensibly happening. They think it’s happening, but it’s not really happening. And people typically choose the ice bucket because it sounds more horrible. [audience laughs] And they’re actually happy.

They’re happy to meet out punishment on that person. They’re happy to be hostile towards that person because that person is a competitor to them. Over the scarce resource what is true, what is right, what is clear in my life. But, the good news is when we talk to them and say, hey, this is the pattern that people demonstrate naturally, automatically, fear and hostility is something that you naturally do when you’re faced with ambiguity, when you’re competing over scarce resources. Let’s talk about this process with you. How would you like to respond to this person? People don’t choose the punishment.

Once it’s brought into conscious awareness, people are able to think a little bit more rationally about it, and we get into this conversation of what is at stake here? Can I bring that into my conscious awareness? What am I afraid of? Am I afraid because I’m a 65 year old white man and the world is really different today than it was when I was growing up? And now my grandkids have a boss who’s Latina, or they have a boss who’s Muslim, and that wasn’t the way it was when I was young.

White people were the bosses when I was young. Is it because I grew up in a Christian home, that was traditional on issues of sexuality, and now I’m coming face to face with someone who claims to love Jesus as much as I do, and my definition of being a Christian excludes that person and now I have to come to terms with this reality? Am I gonna shrink back in fear and hostility? Or am I gonna name it and say what’s at stake here for me is my perception of Truth? And can I lean into that? And can I start to ask bigger questions? Is God, is the God who created this complex and multifaceted world big enough, wise enough, complex and multifaceted enough to handle this ambiguity?

To help me navigate this ambiguity with kindness, with a love where there’s no exception? But we have to pay attention to the processes that are making it so hard for us to be kind. This ambiguity, this competition that leads us to be fearful, to be hostile. And as someone who’s personally really committed to spiritual development, spiritual formation, and the context of this work of being in relationship with the other, I’ve spent a lot of time in communities of people who have to grapple with this on a daily basis.

They are under siege a lot of the time. And so I spent some time in Palestine with people who have to come face to face with another group that they have conflict with. There are scarce resources like land and power and money. And what I’ve learned from my friends who are Palestinian, is so poignant. They believe that God, Jesus calls us to love our enemies.

Yes for the sake of loving our enemies so that they feel loved so that they can experience God’s love, but so we can experience God. And my friends who are Palestinians say, we discover God in our enemies because we are all created in the image of God. And if I’m blinded by hostility, if I’m blinded by fear, if I can’t see past the ambiguity that I’m faced with, how am I possibly gonna be able to actually see God in the people that I’ve labeled an enemy?

What can I learn? How can I be set free? How can this perspective that challenges everything I believe about the world that undermines my entire experience how can this be something that God is teaching me so I can be set free? When I talk with people who’ve gone down this journey, I’ve talked to the white man who for the first time is learning that maybe he didn’t earn everything that he has, and that is earth-shattering. It’s painful.

It is truly painful to face that ambiguity for the first time and to continue leaning into that ambiguity. If I talk to people who’ve gone down that path, they say things like, I feel like for the first time I have flesh on my bones. No matter how hard it is moving forward, I can never go back because there’s something here for me. There’s God here for me. There’s the presence of the Spirit here for me. There’s Truth here for me when I open myself up.

And when I’m not afraid and I allow the Holy Spirit to help me navigate that experience when I live out of love and not fear. My mindful self compassion teacher says that everything in the world, every thought, emotion, and behavior comes from either a place of love or a place of fear. John the Apostle would say something similar, right? He said perfect love casts out fear. Love and fear are opposite. So we must grapple with our fear if we’re ever gonna actually come to a place of love. [mellow music]